I was born in 1962. The first toys I remember are a fluffy ball with a bell inside, a red plastic American push-along locomotive and a musical box, about the size of a food can, with a crank on top. As you turned the crank, metal tongues were flicked inside, much like an African lamellaphone. It had pictures of the royal guards and Buckingham Palace painted on its sides. I don’t remember what the tune was. I also had a Playcraft plastic train set (see below). All these toys seemed to be around since a time before I could remember anything clearly.
The first toy I remember actually receiving was a motorised tank. My dad came home late one night (it was always late when he came home for a kid that was at nursery school!) and presented me with this thing that drove up and down a pile of books on its own! My dad showed me how to open a book and turn it upside down so that its spine formed the ridge of a hill. The tank could go over this too.
Then there was Lego. I had quite a small set of Lego, about enough pieces to fill a large biscuit-tin. But this included an electric motor! I seem to remember I broke the motor quite quickly, but not before making a tank or two of my own. I usually made dragsters, biplanes, lorries, artillery guns and steam trains. I also had a car garage with a slide-over roof but I broke this quite quickly too.
My main love at an early age was toy cars. I quickly started to accumulate a large collection (eventually 240 vehicles) of Corgi, Matchbox, Matchbox Kingsize, Dinky Toys cars and trucks. I had bad luck with a Batmobile, a double-deck car transporter and a baby-blue Buick Riviera. After I had the Batmobile for only a few days, a rocket became stuck in the car’s insides. In those days, cars were all metal and riveted together. Repairing them was hard and, because of its complexity, repairing the Batmobile seemed almost impossible. My dad, an engineer, took it apart, and I had great hopes of him fixing it, but he couldn’t reassemble it. The bits sat on a plate, on my window sill, for many years before I finally threw them away. The transporter’s tail gate/ramp broke. I wrote to Corgi many times, begging them for a replacement, but they never replied. The Buick disappeared mysteriously. I remember being asked if I wanted to swap it for something in his collection by the boy in the house opposite. I refused. A few weeks later, the car went missing. I tore my bedroom and the house apart, hunting for it. I never found it. Even now, I suspect the boy opposite.
Swapping was a very common way to collect toy cars then. I obtained a rare Bedford flatbed truck that way. I was very lucky to have other rare items in my collection. From my dad, I inherited some old Grand Prix cars of the 1950s. These are worth a lot of money now. They are still in the loft. I was also given some cars by a friend of the family, who was about five years older than me, so I obtained some nice cars from the 1950s. My dad also made me a wooden petrol station for my cars. Some of you will remember a plastic petrol station, complete with a lift, available in toy shops. Mine, even better, had a lift, petrol pumps, a ramp and a show room but all with more space than the plastic version. I loved it. Does anybody remember Tonka Toys, or Matchbox Kingsize kit cars? All my Matchbox cars are still in a small suitcase, in the loft. Here is a video, taking you through the 1974 Dinky Toys catalogue.
I mentioned the wooden garage, which my dad made. He also made a nice dolls house for my sister. She was two years younger than me. The dolls house front and back walls could be lifted off to reveal eight large rooms. Two were joined by an archway, a feature popular then on full-sized houses. There was plenty of miniature furniture available for a girl to buy with her pocket-money and some of it was exquisite, but expensive. I think she quickly ran out of funds and never fully furnished the house.
My sister was an ace at Marbles. Again, we were both blessed with fantastic Victorian marbles, inherited from a great aunt or uncle. Some were made of white glass, with lovely red swirls, but my favourite had no stripes or twists inside but had been filled with tiny blue bubbles. Although we were given half of the marbles each, my sister soon began to win all mine from me. We would play on the carpet, in the garden and in the school playground. Not only did she eventually win all mine but she soon started beating everyone at school. Her collection became enormous and I could only stare with envy at the standard sized marbles and the bigger ‘alleys’ and ‘half-alleys’. I remember you could buy marbles in the shop for a couple of shillings, but they were never as nice as our antique ones.
My sister also had a pink, plastic dog on wheels with pushing handles. It looked for all the world like a mini-pram from a distance. She also had a cuddly toy dog, which she cherished and called Poodly Woodly. I would often hide it, which upset her, but I would always give in and tell her where it was in the end. Once, while on holiday in Sidmouth, Devon, I threw it out of the window, onto the hotel roof. She couldn’t find it for days. When I finally showed her where it was, she told my parents and they made me retrieve it! I don’t think I ever hid it again after this.
Of course my sister also had plenty of dolls and she had Tiny Tears – the doll that cried! You fed the baby water from a miniature bottle and then she would cry when you turned her over.
I probably became bored with Lego around the age of ten, so my dad bought me a Meccano set. I think it was about Set 5. I didn’t really get on with it though. I tried to build a crane from the plans but as you progressed, the nuts from earlier components would become loose and you would have to go back and tighten them all. In the end, it became like a house of cards.
In about 1969 or possibly 1970, a new phenomenon appeared in the UK toy car scene; Hot Wheels. I immediately ordered a set from Santa but I it disappointed me. While the track was flexible, the joiners were inexplicably made from brittle plastic and broke very quickly. Within weeks, the track was useless and, in the UK at least, you could not buy joiner replacements. However, I got lucky. My nextdoor neighbours had a Matchbox Superfast set. This was Matchbox’s answer to Hot Wheels and was virtually identical. The crucial difference was that the joiners were flexible. I got stuck with a load of Hot Wheels cars and no track. But the cars would run on Superfast track. So, after some negotiation, I managed to persuade them to part with it. The result was many happy days spent running amazing tracks down the stairs from the landing and out onto the porch. Below is a picture of Matchbox Superfast cars:
One novelty I should also mention was American remote-control cars. When I was about five, our next-door neighbours’ father regularly traveled to America. After one trip, he presented his two sons with these remote-controlled cars. I can’t be certain but I think one was a Cadillac. These were way ahead of what we had in the UK – positively futuristic. We didn’t have remote-control until about 1980, when I did finally get one. American toys always had a mystique for me, after seeing these two cars in the 60s.
After cars, I progressed to trains. Horny and Tri-ang trains were the thing. In 1968 the two companies hadn’t yet merged. I saw the Tri-ang Princess class pacifics of a friend’s train set and I had to have one of my own. My dad chose the Hornby Flying Scotsman set. It had a lovely big, green steam engine, a tender, three standard carriages, a pullman (dining car) carriage and about twenty feet of track. At first, I just laid it on the carpet but it soon became clear this wasn’t a good idea; the cat couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the train every time it came around the track.
“You need a proper, permanent track base,” my dad told me.
‘Great!’ I thought. ‘Maybe the loft? Or all round the landing!’
The problem was that we lived in an ultra-modern challet house. It had a long, sloping roof so the loft was tiny and only about four feet high at its tallest point. The landing was no good either.
Imagine, then, my horror when my dad bought home something door-sized! I had to build my whole set on a door-sized fibreboard panel which measured three feet, six inches wide by six feet, six inches long! My dad fixed it to the wall at waist height, in the study, and left me to it. To this day, I don’t understand why he couldn’t give me a panel four feet wide. Just another six inches! The amount of heartache caused by the missing six inches! First of all, I needed a mainline set, two tracks, one inside the other, because the Flying Scotsman is a mainline train. But this made the inner curve about 18 inches radius. Hornby didn’t make curves this tight! Even the outer curve was hanging over the edge of the panel. My dad had to screw a two-inch wide strip to the side so that the track fitted and I could have a station platform. For the inner track, I had to buy flexi-track, which was very expensive.
My train set days were not to be the paradise I had envisioned. The motors never ran smoothly and consequently I constantly had to oil them and clean the track with ‘track cleaner’. The problem became so acute that I converted a coal wagon to carry the cleaner. But the solution proved too expensive, so I had to substitute it with thinners and white-spirit. Unfortunately, this made the plastic sleepers so brittle that they would break off. I had an elaborate plan for the set I wanted to build, but I never finished it. I found that toy trains are bloody expensive!
After trains, I progressed to model aircraft. Aircraft would quickly become my greatest love but at first, my experiences with models were frustrating. My dad first whispered of rubber-powered wooden models when was about seven. I didn’t understand what he meant but after he brought home an static Airfix Hawker Sea Fury and built it for me, I could see the attraction of a model that could fly.
My father next brought home a Keil Kraft rubber-powered Hawker Hurricane. The box contained balsa wood parts for the whole airframe but they weren’t even pressed out, as later kit parts would be! The box clearly said ‘Ages 10 and above’ and I was 7! It was too much! I struggled for a few weeks before consigning the kit to its box. It’s unclear whether it was my father’s ambition or my own which would plague my early aircraft building career, but the trend continued. When I reached ten years of age, Airfix had just released the first two aircraft kits at 1/24 Scale; the Hurricane and Spitfire. These were huge. I never had been as impressed by the Spitfire as others; I thought then, and in fact still think, that the Spitfire is a bit ugly. I wanted the Hurricane. I think it cost £7.49, a huge sum at the time, but I remember carrying the enormous box home proudly. Again, I wasn’t really old enough to build this kit. I managed to build the thing but it took months, and frayed my nerves.
Other toys I remember from the 60s include toy guns. Although I refuse to touch a real gun these days, I had two Western style pistols, one a long-handled black one with an imitation pearl handle and a shorter barreled one. I also had a Winchester rifle. All fired caps. I had a battery torch, which had a green and a red filter for the lens. You could shine a normal beam or flip over the filter and then everything in the room would turn green or red. I had a Mamod steam roller and several traction engines of different makes. I had a plastic, friction-drive Comet airliner, whose make I have tried, and failed, to discover (please let me know if you remember this and know what it is). Another curiosity, which my father brought home in shrink-wrap pack, was a tiny, Lone Star die-cast American Union Pacific diesel engine, along with some plastic track. It was just a push-along engine but later, I understand, the company installed tiny electric motors. I loved it. But with about twelve inches of track and no carriages, it had limited play value. I had a Scalextric set, almost as old as me. I guess my dad must have bought it as soon as I was born! The cars were Grand Prix cars from the 1950s! I cannot omit mention of my finest toy; an Ever Ready London Underground set. My grandparents ran a combined chemist and record shop in the 1960s and Ever Ready gave out 500 toy train sets of red, London Underground trains as a promotional gimmick. I inherited this. It wasn’t that much fun to play with because it only had a single circle of track but it looks great. It’s still in its box and the box is in good condition. When I last checked, one of these sets went at the auctioneer, Christies, for £500. That was ten years ago. If anybody else has one of these, let me know.
While I continued to work my way through the Airfix model aircraft range, my father moved me on to control-line aircraft. These were model aircraft, whose control was by means of two steel wires, which led from a handle, held by the owner. This system was much like the system used by aerobatic kites. The main difference was that these aircraft flew round you at speeds of up to 100 mph. For some reason, which is beyond my comprehension, my dad chose to buy me the fastest and most sensitive aerobatic model Keil Kraft made. It would be fair to say it was a competition only model. Not only that but the only model engine my dad could lend me was far too powerful. The result was a monster; far too fast for even the most expert control-line flier to handle. When he powered it up for me in the field and let it go, it flew straight into the ground. And I mean, straight into the ground! I never had a chance. I was left with a bag of bits. Consequently, he bought me a smaller engine and we modified the design to make it a bit easier to handle. I rebuilt the model. It still didn’t last long but long enough to teach me the basics. I wanted more, and progressed to a Focke Wulf 190, and later still a Focke Wulf TA 152.
I ended up flying radio-controlled aircraft and even designing my own. My love of aircraft has never been quelled and that passion inspired some of my thrillers, such as Attack Hitler’s Bunker! My love of technology led to me writing about Die Glocke (the Nazi Bell) in my subscription novel Rip.
What are your memories of toys in the 1960s?